Drawn To Solutions: An Interview With Hayley Gold

A paneled discussion.
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Puzzles and comics have had a somewhat weird relationship for quite a while, the two have been side-by-side in many newspapers for decades, and jammed together in the same sections of bookstores and libraries for just as long. It may have been destiny that the two neighbors would eventually come together.

Hayley Gold.

Hayley Gold.

Hayley Gold’s webcomic Across and Down merges those two worlds, but does so in a manner that is not what one might expect. Comics in the U.S. have traditionally starred talking animals, sitcom-styled people, or superheros, but Gold has taken a different route. Each week the creator will fashion a comic that lovingly lampoons and critiques a crossword from the New York Times, doing so in a very visual way.

Fill from the crosswords will be picked apart by Gold and turned into comedic material. In a recent comic the words “EMU” and “LEAN” were one above the other, the creator took the “M”, “EA”, and “T” from another word to form the phrase “LEAN MEAT”. Tucked with a drawing of two emus, she pokes fun with a critical turn of phrase about keeping the crosswordese “fresh” by labeling it as “lean meat.”

The visual style of the comic is a bit of a departure from Gold’s portfolio pieces and narrative-based comics. Drawn in black and white with hard and crisp lines, the artistic choices suits its subject matter well, mimicking the world it satirizes.

Across and Down began as a college project, but it has slowly transformed into a delightful piece of the puzzle community, adding something that itself is fresh.

Gold is coming up on Across and Down’s first anniversary, and she took time to talk with Puzzle Pile about her background, both personal and artistic, puzzles, and everything that goes into making the puzzle comic.

Puzzle Pile: Can you share a little bit about your personal background and what’s been going on lately in the life of Hayley Gold?

Gold: I’m a senior at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), so I’m getting ready to graduate. And by getting ready, I mean doing nothing and stewing over the hurdles that I’ll have to face come May. I have to find a place to live and a source of income, but even more stressful are my ambitions to work on an autobiographical graphic novel. I’ve started it this school year, but it is a very long term, in-depth project and I’m a bit overwhelmed by it. Doing Across and Down can sometimes be stressful too, but it can also bring me great relief because I feel comfortable doing it at this point and it can be fun to put together.

Puzzle Pile: What sort of highlights do you have on your puzzler’s résumé and how might puzzlers know you?

Gold: I think I’d only be known from my webcomic, though I have been involved in other puzzle-ventures. A few years ago at ACPT I did a silent auction on a crossword mosaic mirror for a reading charity. I also have aided in the construction of some cryptic puzzles that you can find in Roger Wolff’s Cryptic All-Stars books.

I’m an NPL member, as I love the cryptics in the Enigma, and have gone to the ACPT for several years, as well as Lollapuzzoola, but that isn’t really a notch in my belt. I’m not especially gifted at solving and am really just another face in the crowd.

Puzzle Pile: When did you first discover puzzles and what was it about them that caught your interest and imagination?

Gold: I started doing crosswords when I was in middle school, because my mom did them in our local Long Island newspaper, Newsday. I started doing it to relieve stress and soon was hungry for more. I got copies of the [New York Times (NYT)] puzzle at the library and after doing my first rebus I was hooked. Once I saw the movie Wordplay I knew I had to go to the tournament.

Truth be told, I never really felt at home there because I had trouble making connections with people, since most of them were much older than me and had been going there quite some time, but I hope that after making such a web presence in the puzzle community this year that things will improve.

I’ve always had trouble socially. None of my classmates, in high school or college, care very much for crosswords. Once I brought in a bunch for everyone on the last day of classes, we were having a party, and they made them into paper airplanes and launched them out the window.

Puzzle Pile: Across and Down focuses in on the New York Times crossword puzzle, are you only a big crossword fan, or do your interests branch out to other puzzle forms like Akari, Cryptics, or Masyu?

Gold: I used to be into crosswords alone, but now I rarely do regular American style ones outside of the comic. Cryptics are my main squeeze, particularly variety cryptics. I need that meta-puzzle element, that twist that they all have. Figuring out that second layer to them is like the carrot on the stick that keeps you solving. Now, NYT Thursday level puzzles often have that too, but I enjoy the cryptic style cluing a little bit more than the straight forward ones.

I’m also a fan of other variety word puzzles, namely Rows Gardens. Stuff in the [Wall Street Journal (WSJ)] Saturday puzzles, like Section Eights I really enjoy. But I don’t care for non-word puzzles. Words are really my passion in puzzling.

Rows Garden puzzle.

Rows Garden puzzle.

Puzzle Pile: Why do you suppose that you’re drawn to word puzzles in particular, is it the playful interaction between clue and answer, do the words themselves have a special connection for you, or is there a different type of connection you feel toward them?

Gold: I should start off by saying that I do like math very much. I loved calculus in high school — probably because solving the problems in my textbook was a lot like solving a puzzle. It’s like you’re going on a treasure hunt, doing all this fancy footwork, and then you get to a solution, and generally, there is no gray area there, it’s either right or wrong, and when you solved it you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

It was one of those rare diversions where the journey is as rewarding as the destination, and —bonus points— I was also getting my homework done. It’s like a vitamin that tastes like candy! And in the end, it really is of no consequence, I mean, if you can’t solve the puzzle the world isn’t going to come to an end.

Anyway, most of the number puzzles I’ve been exposed to don’t work like that. So maybe if given the right non-word puzzle, I’d become an addict. That said, I do have a few theories on why I prefer word puzzles.

First of all, they have more real content, they’re more participatory in a way. Like, you make all these associations based off the words and you build your own story, which is sort of the basis of my comic. But you are almost making a connection with the constructor because you can see what he was thinking, other types of puzzles are much more sterile.

And then, of course, I just like playing with words, arranging them in different ways, punning on them. Anagramming a word has implications beyond what you can do by playing with numbers, because you create a new word and that word has meaning and all these connections are built.

With numbers, there’s not all those instant associations there. Of course, to someone more adept with numbers, the inverse may be the case. Words just always came easily to me, as a play thing, as a way to express myself. I love learning new words and phrases, and putting them together in different ways so I can clearly express what I want to get across, and create mood, tone, rhythm. With words, I can craft my own little world.

Puzzle Pile: Can you describe the path that you’ve taken in becoming a comic artist, from the youthful scribbles to your fourth year at the School Of Visual Arts (SVA)?

Gold: Well, it’s tricky and often stressful. I mean, I wish I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer.  You just go to school, follow the path set out for you, and poof, you’re a practicing professional.

I chose to go to SVA because of the specific cartooning major they offer, but really, the school does little to prepare you and just having a degree is meaningless. You really have to carve your own path and I’m very insecure about my ability to get a foothold in all this.

Most of my teachers, who are all working artists, gripe about how tough a field it is.  Many actually seem to want to convince the students to do something else because cartooning is just too difficult to make a living off of— like they want you to give up. I don’t have confidence in my artistic skills, but I like telling stories this way—I mean, I think it is a beautiful medium and the most communicative. To show and tell at once, it seems to me like you can send messages to your reader on a whole other level than with singular visuals or prose.

Maus cover image.

Maus cover image.

I knew this was what I wanted to do since I was about 10. I read a lot of manga, which taught me that comics don’t simply have to be the superhero stories that I never much cared for. I was reading the author’s notes in one edition of Sailor Moon and she mentioned how she got fan mail from some obscure island nation and it really made me see how many people you can reach, how many lives you can touch. I wanted to tell stories that affected the entire world this way.

Then I read Maus [a graphic novel that takes place in World War II, portraying the Jewish people as mice and the Nazi regime as cats], and I was already aware of how the medium could be used for serious stories, but I was just impressed by how enjoyable it was. Often times such material could come off as boring or sterile or just depressing, but the information flow was so easy to take in and it was so entertaining. I wanted to make something that also was quite impactful but was so easy to swallow.

Puzzle Pile: Where did the idea of Across and Down come from, why choose the New York Times crossword puzzle as your muse, and what was the journey like in creating that first comic?

Gold: Last year I took a webcomics class and decided to make my focus crosswords simply because they’re my passion. I chose the NYT puzzle because it is so widely solved and I needed some constraint to give the comic focus. Something as temporal as the crossword seemed like good fodder for a webcomic as well. I had, and still have, other projects to work on so I didn’t want to make something super complicated like an on-going drama. Also, the static nature of the panels is much easier to pull off than a narrative that tries to convey more movement and action.

I played around with formats and decided on the black and white square to reflect the puzzle itself and used computer font just because it saves on time, it was the most legible after being compacted to a tiny gif file, and it wasn’t wholly inappropriate for the subject matter.

When I started writing my first comic I had no idea what to do, so I just looked at a bunch of puzzles until I found something to say about one, something that seemed quirky about it to me. I looked at the blogs, to see how they went about it, but they mostly wrote about their solving experience. I tried that out at first, and also tried pointing out my quibbles with the puzzles, but what turned out to feel most natural and interesting was just making a story out of it, looking for a second layer to the puzzle in a way. But I also try to do something a bit different each time, and sometimes I might just be complaining—I’m very good at that—but I try to complain in an entertaining way.

I often start a dialogue with the constructor, since sometimes that’s what solving a puzzle feels like, and sometimes I address the audience. I do try to think of the audience which is largely very hardcore solvers and constructors, since those are the people who would’ve noticed the comic’s existence through the puzzle web community, but I also try to make it accessible to less ardent solvers. It’s not like one of those single panel gags that riffs on crosswords as a whole but really has little to do with them. I get very specific and very into the nitty gritty of what puzzles are all about. It’s something only a real puzzle fan can appreciate, though I suppose that limits my appeal.

Puzzle Pile: What goes into making one of your comics and is the typical creation process?

Gold: After deciding which puzzle I want to do, which is often a tough decision by itself, as some weeks all the puzzles may speak to me, and some none seem to—I quickly write up a script based on the 9 panel format. It often takes a lot of research. I need to fact check to make sure I know what I’m talking about when relating to the puzzle’s theme and the comic’s theme— which are often different.

At the same time I’m thinking of what the visual elements will be. I might have a buttload to say but if I don’t have a good image to pair with it, it won’t work. I also think about what panels will show me.  Unless I’m doing something special, I try to make it around 3 of those per comic. I fear it’ll get too redundant if I use too many but then sometimes I think my audience really doesn’t care at all about that stuff and just wants the puzzle commentary. I, however, get very picky about it.

Across and Down comic sample.

‘Tis Better To Regift. Comic: Across and Down.

I like to explain the puzzle in case someone reads it who’s unaware of the theme, though probably all readers have done the puzzle, or at least should’ve if they want optimal enjoyment from the comic.

Anyway, I end up with a script that has both dialogue and notes for pictures. I have a template for it set on Photoshop and then I just start doing all the drawings on my Cintiq, a digital drawing tablet. Then I put in the word balloons using Adobe Illustrator, and lastly, try to balance the black and white of the backgrounds before I shrink the whole thing down into a gif and load it into the website. I also then try to think of some sort of promo line and image to advertise each installment on Facebook and to subscribers.

Puzzle Pile: How have things changed over the course of this past year in how you create and approach Across and Down?

Gold: Not much after the first month or so, when I was trying to find my voice— that is when I realized I can basically say whatever I want and take chances, though still complying with the initial format I set up. You’ll see, the very first one wasn’t a square, but then I made it shorter and felt that worked better, even just as a way to limit myself so I don’t go crazy. I can be very perfectionistic and I don’t have time to overthink it more than I do, especially with a piece that is so of-the-moment as this.

My methods have changed a little bit as I learned what works and doesn’t in creating the visuals, so basically I’ve streamlined things more, learned the right way to space the font, build the word balloons, the right thickness of lines, the brushes that look best, etc.

I also have had a lot of feedback about the tone I take. At first people complained I was too nasty and cruel, that I was “going the route of the bloggers” and then some people say that I’m not critical enough. I am very affected by what people think of me and want to please everyone, but I only say what I really think and always try to be a bit outlandish and edgy.

The way I really edit my content is by what I think is most entertaining. If a puzzle is over-the-top bad, it might be fun to lampoon, but usually the worst puzzles are just boring and too boring to make an interesting comic about. More importantly, just nagging about the hallmarks of a bad puzzle, such as out-of-language fill, inconsistent theme answers, etc. is repetitive. I want to make something as fresh as the puzzles themselves and something fun to read.

Puzzle Pile: Have you considered crossing the critiquing and satirical line, and try your hand at puzzle design?

Gold: I have done puzzle construction and I don’t like it, too frustrating. I can come up with theme ideas and maybe good clues, but filling the grid just isn’t my thing.

Puzzle Pile: Throughout the year Across and Down has been running, you’ve picked apart crossword puzzles with an observant and jest-full eye, has this lead you to a greater understanding and appreciation for a well designed crossword, and for you, what are the attributes that make a good puzzle?

Gold: Yes and no. I already knew a lot about what I looked for in a puzzle since I was a long time solver going into the whole venture, (and I do think this is a very individualized thing, like, an inexperienced solver may hate a hard Thursday puzzle, but someone else will think its deceptive theme is a feat of ingenuity) but I learned more about what is considered proper, like you can have a puzzle that’s a fun solve and a good theme, but it may be rough around the edges.

Theme answers need to be consistent, symmetrical. Two obscure entries shouldn’t cross. Abbreviations, particles, and the like should be minimized. References to old stuff = stale, all things related to social media = fresh. So stuff like that.

However, I did learn certain qualities that a puzzle may have that makes it more prime for turning into a comic. First of all, themes help immensely, but a themeless that has a special commonality in a lot of the fill can also work. Then, also, it’s good for the fill to be things that are easy to represent visually. For instance, fun slangy phrases make great fresh fill, but can I draw them? Unlikely. Rebuses are my fav and they’re good for comic-tizing too, usually, because they often have a graphic element. The same is true for puzzles that contain grid art, obviously.

Also, if I know of the constructor and their body of work, it sometimes helps to get incite or at least make jokes. Holiday puzzles also are really fun to write about. I like to make connections to current events, regardless of the puzzle’s actual theme, so holiday puzzles are like a give-me.

Puzzle Pile: What sort of projects do you have coming up in 2015?

Gold: Well, I am working on that autobio piece but that won’t be released this year, so in terms of Across and Down, I’ve recently started doing commissioned works, and you can see that, along with the recently added “order prints” in the menubar of the site.

I want to not just do the NYT comics, but make personalized comics on any puzzle. Usually people like this a gift to someone, so I’d make them more about a person, though really, I’ll try anything that someone asks for.

I also plan to be at the ACPT, where I’ll be giving away free magnets, posters, and a special promo comic booklet. I’d like to use it as an opportunity to familiarize people with the site who haven’t seen it, and show them how to subscribe. Though there’s a subscribe slot to put your email in right underneath the comic, a lot of people seem to miss it. I really urge fans to subscribe since new comics come out on random days of the week, so there’s no way to know if there’s a new one without getting the notification. I also recently started a Facebook page for the site, and I hope to do a special comic on the winner of the Orca Awards.

Puzzle Pile: Thanks so much for your time, Hayley. Do you have any final words for our readers?

Gold: Yes, I’d love feedback! I’d love to hear what people like, and dislike, even if it is a complaint. I like to know how people receive my work, and what I can do to improve. Now, I did mention that I’ve gotten conflicting feedback in the past and so I can’t really please everyone, but I still like hearing from everyone even if I can’t carry out their requests.

Also, I’d love for there to be just more general puzzle discussion, like on the blogs. You can leave any kind of relevant comment you want underneath the puzzle. I’d love there to be interesting debates and varying interpretations of the comic and puzzle. So write to me if it’s private, or leave it under the comic for interactivity. The point of it being a webcomic is to make it participatory to a certain degree.

Don’t hesitate to ask me about doing special assignments. I’d love to get more work doing custom comics on puzzles. I’m flexible so if you don’t want exactly an “Across and Down” comic, I can tweak it to be more to your liking. I just really like writing about the puzzles and doing wordplay.


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